Costa Mesa martial arts foundation offers low-cost instruction, which stresses physical and mental karate skills, to local children.

By Andrew Edwards, Daily Pilot

 

Founded on discipline

Julian Marquez doesn't need a joystick to unleash a punch or a kick. His karate skills aren't tied to a game console and TV screen. The 12-year-old Costa Mesa resident is a student in the Costa Mesa-based Walking Tall Foundation. The foundation was formed in 1993 by sixth-degree black belt Joaquin Sahagun as a nonprofit organization to teach karate to children at a reduced cost.

"It's fun. It's hard and fun at the same time. They push you," Julian said.

Initially, Sahagun wanted to offer instruction at no cost, but he later realized kids would show more dedication if their families had to pay a fee. The program's fee structure starts at $50 a month, but actual payments can be adjusted along a sliding scale, said instructor Gina Sahagun, who is married to Joaquin.

"We work with each individual family," she said. "A single woman trying to raise her kids, they get first priority for a full scholarship."

The program does not receive direct government aid, Gina Sahagun said. Walking Tall is financed by fundraisers like Costa Mesa's fireworks sales program, and Joaquin Sahagun said he is planning to raise funds through karate tournaments in case fireworks are ever banned in the city.

Julian has been in the program for about eight months and at a recent practice, demonstrated what he called an iron-body set. The set is a series of moves where the young student performed a variety of somersaults, tumbles and butterfly kicks. When he executed a butterfly kick, Julian leapt to the air, tilted his head and body forward and spun both legs behind him.

Instructor Philip Sahagun, Joaquin's son, teaches Walking Tall students and looked on as Julian demonstrated his skills. The tumbling techniques are essential to the series that Julian completed, Philip Sahagun explained. He said kids who study the moves can learn to avoid getting hurt if they fall while riding a skateboard or scooter.

"It's to condition the kids to getting used to taking hits, blows and falls," Philip Sahagun said.

Or as Julian put it, "You break your fall so it doesn't hurt. But it looks like it hurt."

Julian and the other Walking Tall students practice in a 15,000-square-foot gym on Grace Lane. In mid-July, the Walking Tall Foundation and the Sahaguns' for-profit venture, South Coast Martial Arts, moved from their original home on Harbor Boulevard to its new locale, where swords and other weapons line the walls.

In the foundation's new digs, exercise equipment takes up the west end of the building, and Walking Tall students practice on blue mats on the east end. Several punching bags are set up in the middle, and in the evening, adults come to practice kickboxing. The sounds of hands and feet pummeling the bags fill the air while some of the youngsters continue to train.

WEAPONS ARE READY

The students at Walking Tall study kenpo karate, which according to www.all-karate.com, is a discipline popular in the United States that uses hand and foot techniques in equal measure. Karate itself does not include the study of weapons. However, Walking Tall's program includes the study of 19 weapons, such as the staff, nunchaku and katana.

Tyler Connors, 9, and Stanley Johnson, 10, are two students who work with weapons. Stanley, who lives in Santa Ana, said he chose the staff because it's practical. If he is ever attacked, he said, he might be able to use a common object like a broom to defend himself.

"You wouldn't carry a sword or nunchaku," he said.

Showing what they have learned, Stanley planted one end of the staff on a practice map and used his momentum to turn a cartwheel. Tyler, a Costa Mesa resident, twirled the weapon quickly in front of him using a series of what he called forward spins and uppercut spins.

Tyler's mother, Cindy Connors, said she thinks her son's experience has taught him more than martial arts. She said Tyler has become more focused and confident since he joined the program.

"He loves karate so he really enjoys this," she said. "This is a great atmosphere. If you ever hang around here, there's always kids around."

In addition to Walking Tall, Philip Sahagun also teaches South Coast Martial Art's Jao Qin weapon classes. Philip Sahagun said the gym has 30 weapon varieties on hand, though some, such as the bull whip, are too dangerous for kids.

However, the bull whip is Philip Sahagun's specialty. On the gym's stage, he demonstrated a series of moves with the whip and another set with the straight sword. The whip was hardly visible as the weapon swung and cracked through the air. At one point in his demonstration, he finished one series of moves by wrapping the weapon around his body before moving on to the next series.

MORE AND MORE TRAINING

About 30 Walking Tall students also perform on stage as members of the group's demonstration team, Philip Sahagun said. The team performed at the Orange County Fair in July, and last week members were preparing for a show on Saturday. For the demonstration team, one of the benefits of the new gym is that its higher ceilings make it easier for team members to practice aerial acrobatics.

As one would expect, being a member of the demonstration team means having to spend more time at practice.

"Some of them train six days a week," Philip Sahagun said.

Like her older brother Philip, Nicole Sahagun, 15, has grown up surrounded by the martial arts. Their father has about 30 years of kenpo karate experience and their mother, Gina Sahagun, is a kickboxing instructor at the gym. Nicole said she heads straight to the gym after finishing classes at school and has a computer upstairs to do her homework when she's not practicing.

As far as weapons go, Nicole's specialty is the fan. Demonstrating the weapons, she held one fan in each hand and executed a series of moves that, like her brother's demonstrations, resembled a cross between a break-dancing routing and a fight. The paper and wood folding fans popped loudly as Nicole opened the weapons during the routine.

"I've been doing this for maybe four years, and let me tell you, I've gotten a lot better," Nicole said.

Compared with the sword and the whip her brother wielded, Nicole's fans are not obvious weapons at first glance. Part of the reason is that she used the practice variety during her demonstration. Afterward, she showed the combat version, which uses spiked pieces of iron instead of wood.

EMPHASIZING THE MENTAL

Self-defense skills and fitness are core objectives of martial arts training, but Joaquin Sahagun said he wants students to learn mental discipline as much as physical techniques.

"If a kid wants to come here to learn how to fight so he can beat up his friend, he's not going to be here very long," Joaquin Sahagun said.

Joaquin Sahagun, who grew up in South Los Angeles and started studying karate when he was 24 years old, talks up the less obvious benefits of the class. Kids who can learn to pay attention to a martial arts instructor can learn to be better listeners in the classroom, he says.

Another part of his philosophy is that a youngster who gains confidence through martial arts will be better equipped to resist the temptations of drugs and alcohol. He said he does not allow adults to smoke or drink around kids at Walking Tall events and believes that someone who has self-defense skills will not feel threatened by others who use drugs or feel pressured to try drugs in order to look tough.

"It gives the kids more courage to stay the course or be their own person," Joaquin Sahagun said. "Some people think I'm creating a bunch of killers, but it's the mental skills."

After eight months with Walking Tall, Julian said he has learned that having confidence is an important part of the program. He said believing he can learn a technique is one of the most important parts of success.

"You can't be scared. You have to be 100% sure that you can do it," Julian said.

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